Thursday 6 September 2018

Born In 1918 by Sheena Wilkinson

Last month my family celebrated two big birthdays. On 11 August I took my parents out to dinner on what would have been my granny’s hundredth birthday. She died in 1997 but a centenary seemed momentous and one of the things my mother and I have both inherited from her is the love of getting dressed up for a ‘wee race out’.

Granny at 50

I’ve been so busy this year thinking of 1918 as the centenary of women’s suffrage, the end of WW1 and the Spanish Flu, that I hadn’t really thought about its being Granny’s centenary too, and it was good to stop and reflect on it, and on what it meant to be born in that year, in that place. Granny (Elizabeth Rea Pleasants, née Hamilton, always known as Rea) was born and lived her whole life in Downpatrick, the county town of Down, where St Patrick is buried. When she was three, Ireland was partitioned and Down became part of the new Northern Ireland. She came of age as the Second World War broke out, and when she was 51, she saw Northern Ireland plunge into its own bloody war. She never let go of calling the Republican of Ireland the Free State, but in other ways she was the most modern of women. 

Like my other gran, Gran W, Granny P. lived through a great deal of history. Sometimes I wished I’d asked her more about it. But she was so busy, always rushing about. She lived in the moment, not the past. She had neither the time nor the patience to sit down and talk to a small girl about the olden days. But she took me to mass and to bingo. She slipped me embarrassingly generous amounts of money when she had it, which was not always because she was ridiculously generous to many people. The first pound note I ever held in my hand was a ninth birthday present from Granny P.

Downpatrick, 1920s, shortly after partition

1980, I'm 12; she's 62
She sang in the local operatic society and passed on to me her good, strong voice. Mummy remembers always being mortified that her own mummy sang so loudly at mass. After Vatican II she became the first woman lay reader in her local church. In the early 60s she adopted three children, two of them mixed race, an unusual undertaking in a small Northern Irish town. Whereas Gran W was a good plain traditional cook, and much given to baking, sewing, knitting and housekeeping, Granny P experimented with spaghetti and curry as far back as the fifties, but often my quiet granda did the cooking, as Granny was off to a whist drive. Gran W wore a frock and an overall, Granny P wore lipstick and trousers and a fake fur, and kept her hair jet back until well into old age.

I was born in 1968, the third of seventeen grandchildren. So yes, that’s the other big birthday we’ve been celebrating. I compare my granny at 50 to me, and my life to hers. At 50 she was very much the matriarch, whereas I’m single and childfree. Granny was bright, talented, and independent-spirited, but growing up in the twenties and thirties as a young Catholic girl in Northern Ireland, her expectations were marriage, church and family. She was very active in those areas, marrying at 21, but she also found time to work outside the house. She was in the Fire Service during the war, and even left home to work as a children’s nanny as a widow in her late sixties. She wouldn’t have had any thoughts of higher education but when I went off to university in 1987 she handed me £50, more money than I'd  ever had in my life, and typical of her generosity. 

Me at 50 -- not so different from Granny P after all 
She was very much of her time, and yet stood against it. When I do anything especially outré my mother will say, Granny the second! I always take it as a compliment. 


Lynne Benton said...

Fascinating post, Sheena - and what an interesting grandmother you had! Thank you for sharing her life with us. (Now we know where your got your singing voice from.) And by the sound of it, your other grandmother was pretty memorable too.

Ann Turnbull said...

I do enjoy your posts, Sheena! Thank you for this glimpse of the past. Like your Granny, my Mum was in the Fire Service during the war. She already had me, and we were living with my Granny. My Dad was a soldier, and I didn't meet him until I was nearly three, when he came home. I remember that meeting well!

Sheena Wilkinson said...

Thank you so much for your comments! Ann, it's lovely of you to say that you enjoy my posts. I love writing them but I often feel they are very personal and less learned than some other History Girls! It's great to know they have struck a chord with someone! THat's so interesting about your father coming hime from war -- something similar happened in my family, but that's another story!

Unknown said...

"She lived in the moment, not the past." Not a bad thing, if you've seen some of the wrong sort of history. She sounds a great lady.